by Brandi Nuse-Villegas
With every cup of coffee, there is a story. There is the story of the people and situations in which the coffee beans were planted, cultivated, sold, shipped (usually thousands of miles away), roasted, and eventually bought, brewed, and placed in the hands of the coffee drinker. When it comes to Lanna Cafe coffee, that story is one of a transformative partnership that spans an ocean, including tribal villages in Thailand, and Fresno’s Brian Acosta and Kyle Kennington.
Brian had no expertise in coffee making a little over a year ago when he decided to launch his unique coffee roasting business endeavor, Lanna Cafe USA, in Fresno, California. He had been trained in firefighting, but decided that the career didn’t allow him the time he needed with his family, then worked eight years in wireless communications. He had an ongoing desire to serve in overseas mission work for many years, and sought every opportunity he could to go overseas. He was, in his own words, an above average coffee aficionado, to be sure. However, he hadn’t even the experience of a barista before setting out to craft an incredible cup of coffee.
Then he entered into the story of tribal villagers in the northern hill region of Thailand. The villagers are refugees from Burma, Laos, and China, unrecognized by the Thai government and thus unable to gain employment or public services such as education, health care, and sanitation. In 2010, he, Kyle, and a group from The Well Community Church in Fresno visited some of their villages.
“These are people who live in bamboo huts, grow rice to try to provide for their families, hike for miles up into the hills to get clean water. Infant mortality rates are so high.” What really struck him, though, he shared, “You go into these areas and you see the simplicity of life… These people are so incredibly generous and kind. The way they value relationships and individuals is astounding. We forget that as Americans. We don’t prioritize relationship above all.”
“At first when you come in, you feel sorry for them, but then you realize that they understand what is important. They prioritize people at the top of that list. And we miss that. If you spend any time there, you’ll come away realizing how backwards we have it as Americans.”
These villages had developed a two decade long partnership with another group that had earned his respect and admiration, a missions organization called Integrated Tribal Development Program (ITDP). Where the government of Thailand didn’t step in, ITDP reached out to assist the villages in crucial development. Brian explained that Mike Mann (Director of ITDP and considered an expert in community development) had invited Brian and his church to come after they connected on a previous ministry trip in Laos.
“I was blown away how impactful they were. In the twenty four mission trips I have gone on, I have never seen an organization have as much of an impact on communities, both physically and spiritually. I was floored by their entire operation.” He explained that IDTP and the villagers worked together to meet the needs for a water purification system, education, sanitation, and health care. “The only thing they were lacking to continue this development was funding. The fifth piece to build on was economic development.”
Brian explained that because most of the villagers were not Thai citizens, they were not allowed to seek employment. One of the only means of income was through the production and sale of opium. The other was to sell their children to human traffickers. “Whatever they can do to survive.”
“I saw economic development as a very crucial piece to finalize and sustain the development they’ve been doing. At the end of the day, if you can’t offer any economic development, the community is going to end up back sliding and eroding the development away,” explained Brian.
In order to provide a means of income, IDTP had introduced coffee to the hill people. “I realized it was phenomenal coffee they were growing – really a premium product,” he observed, which they roasted through their own business called Lanna Cafe Thailand. “And so I thought, the biggest hang up they have is an adequate market to sell the coffee into. They had been trying to sell it in Thailand, but the Thai people don’t drink a lot of coffee.” Here, Brain realized his place in the story.
Brian had already recognized, during a community class called “Perspectives in World Missions,” that he was much better at promoting a cause and mobilizing people than being the person on the field. On this trip, they developed the vision for a unique partnership he would help cultivate in the States with the mission organization and the villagers with Lanna Cafe Thailand.
He would come alongside this village and purchase the coffee, import it raw into the United States, roast it locally, and then sell it. “So we have fresh roasted premium coffee to sell locally and can use the revenue that it creates to send back to Thailand to fuel the development of the next village.” Thus, Lanna Cafe USA was born.
“It employs the villagers and gives them a sense of hope knowing they have a buyer that will continually purchase their product and also create hope for the next village, knowing that that as [their coffee] sells, they will be able to bring in the development that other villages have, like water purification…So it basically completes the sustainability project for one village and starts it for another village.”
Asked if he had any relevant experience before taking on this project, he laughed, “No. I had a love for coffee for years, but I had not training coffee roasting. Once I had the vision for this, I came back and spent the next six months researching non-profits and feasibility of roasting coffee to really launch the company. I went back to Thailand and spent two weeks there working with the staff, learning the basics of roasting. They have a small roasting house there.”
He returned and received training for all the coffee certificates he needed, including advanced roasting, flavor identification, and the art of blending. “That, for me, was a really fun experience,” he said, though admitting that it was a bit like drinking out of a fire hose. “I knew more than the average coffee lover going in, but I didn’t realize how deep the pool was.”
When their roaster arrived earlier this year, Brian spent a month working on the flavor profiles and dialing them in to ensure that they can provide the same cup of coffee in each roast. He sent samples to those in the industry to check on correct flavor identification and quality.
As the business developed, he hired on Kyle Kennington, who had been working as a volunteer, to serve as their accounts manager. “Going on the [first Thailand trip] opened my eyes to missions,” said Kyle, who met Brian while preparing for the trip and went to him afterward to talk about his desire to serve. Brian invited him to help with Lanna Cafe and a year later, Kyle left his own job as a firefighter to come on board. This year, they officially launched their product and gained clients. They have now been in operation as a business for seven months.
“We’ve been extremely well received a far as quality goes,” Brian said. In addition to being sold online, the coffee is being brewed and sold at a growing number of local businesses, including the Hip Joint, a cafe within a medical center in North Fresno, Bella Frutta Store in Clovis, Ronnie’s Midway Market in Fresno, and Di Amici Cafe in Mendota. While eager to share the story and vision when approaching potential clients, he says that he lets the quality of the coffee speak for itself first.
Lanna Cafe has been active in the local community, at farmer’s markets and events, to share the message of their mission as well as their product, “So that people understand the entirety of the product.” They recently started reaching out to other cities with their message and products. “The biggest for me,” Kyle said of his experience, “is understanding that there is so many aspects to missions that people don’t realize. It is much more than just sending money to send someone. If you take a moment to think outside of the box, there are so many ways to be missional, to be involved in missions, than boots on the ground.” He relishes the “joy of being able to do business as a ministry, which is unique to most people. Usually people don’t see those as being related.”
Even in the beginning stages, theirs is no small operation, Brian noted. “When people hear that we are roasting coffee, they imagine us in a kitchen with something like a popcorn roaster. We’re huge. Our first shipment was 18 metric tons and we’ve already put a huge dent in that. The price of each bag of coffee covers the wholesale price paid to the farmers, Brian’s and Kyle’s salaries, and any other production expenses. The remaining amount is sent back to Thailand for development in other villages. He noted that all donations go straight to those development projects. Their work so far this year has generated $30,000 in revenue and over $100,000 in direct donations.
Brian and those with Lanna Cafe USA have also continued to be involved with the people in the Thai villages. “We’re maintaining relationships and working with them on a co-op level.” That work includes setting up processing stations and educating the villagers on growing, harvesting, and quality control methods. Brian himself has been learning the agricultural side of the industry so that he understands the whole process from germination to harvest and how it affects the quality of the coffee in the cup.
Brian noted that Lanna Cafe cannot be Fair Trade certified because the International Fair Trade board only will certify villages of Thai citizens within Thailand. No matter. Brian said that in their ‘direct trade’ process, there is more of a relationship between the buyers and the growers than fair trade, which still has elements of bureaucracy in the process. They also pay the growers more than required by fair trade regulations and hope to improve even the way growers are paid.
Brian explained that Lanna Cafe and IDTP are working on having a revolving fund available for the farmers so that on the days when they bring in the product, they get paid immediately. Currently they are able to pay them one-third up front and give them the remaining amount when revenue is gained from sales. This is a huge departure from the norm in the global coffee industry, where raw coffee buyers usually collect the coffee from the farmers and don’t pay them until after it is all sold. “Usually in the coffee industry, the farmer grows it, the middle man collects and tries to sell it, and, usually, that process takes a long time. If he is unable to sell it, they don’t get paid. A lot of times, the buyers [lie] and just tell them it didn’t sell.” It is all too common for buyers to exploit the farmers with tactics that fall just short of slavery, noted Brian.
“We’re trying to build those funds so they can see we have an infrastructure and it’s reliable.” Another uncommon aspect of the business between Lanna Cafe USA and Thailand is that, unlike most “middle men” who come and go with the farmers’ crops, they have staff who are continually there working with the farmers. Most of these employees are villagers themselves, recognized by IDTP as potential leaders, who have been trained and sent back to help their own people.
Looking to the future, Brian says they are working towards merging Lanna Cafe Thailand and Lanna Cafe USA under one large non-profit organization, which will create one of the only organizations that covers operations from grower to consumer with no middle man. He noted that this will take time as they work with the Thai government’s non-profit organization laws. “We’ll be full scale and operating in two continents.”
Brian added that their next big push is in green brokering, selling the raw coffee to other businesses in the U.S. in order to increase demand and thus production, so that more villages can be brought into the co-op. They are also in the process of becoming USDA Certified Organic. More immediately, he will be returning at the end of December to see two new coffee processing methods, honey process and natural pulp process, and to gain more training along with the growers.
In the midst of sharing the vision for their work, the villagers, thousands of miles from his business site in Fresno, are vivid in Brian’s mind. Brian reflected, “In January, when we filmed the video now on our website, we went to one of the villages that had been growing coffee the longest, [in order] to film the harvesting process. While we were filming, the whole time this one villager was running across the camera, grabbing the director, pointing, and talking. Then the interpreter would talk to him. Then he would come running again to show us something. I couldn’t figure out what this guy was doing. What was so important?
“Finally we asked the interpreter who said, ‘He wants to show you these pigs.’ The first time Mike Mann hiked in, he had brought [the pigs] and taught them how to raise and breed them. Then the man showed us the first coffee tree… and the water lines from the first water purification system. It was absolutely astounding to me how excited this guy was. He was just a small kid when Mike first came. It was incredible how overjoyed he was to see Mike and to share his joy and gratitude for the development that had occurred and how that has helped them as a community: it keeps families together. That’s the most astounding thing. I was so focused on what was being done, that I overlooked the impact it has on the life of people. They were so excited to share the changes and how grateful they were.”
Kyle added, “I definitely encourage people to go to Thailand. It is an amazing place. And connect with [IDTP.] They are doing mission work in an amazing way.”
For information, including coffee locations and online purchases, visit their website.For more on Integrated Tribal Development Program and their work in the hill tribes of Thailand, go to http://itdp.webs.com/. For links on other empowerment projects, visit globalloveshopping.blogspot.com.